Saturday, April 28, 2007

PEN World Voices Events, Part 2

Words Without Borders: Every Day in Africa
With Marguerite Abouet, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yasmina Khadra, Uzodinma Iweala; moderated by Dedi Felman

This event I think was supposed to be about African literature and it turned into anything but that. The most outspoken of the authors was definitely Yasmina Khadra. He is an ex-military officer working under a female pseudonym. The first words out of his mouth were "I disagree with the whole premise of the is panel" ...okay, that was interesting. The point of contention seemed to be Africa itself. "I am a writer of the world." None of the other authors expressed agreement with this premise. All was still, then we continued on.

Since the theme of this year's festival was "Home and Away" the moderator tried to pull us back to topic and asked the panel "What does home mean to you?" Marguerite Abouet said that the Ivory Coast was home even though she lived in France, Uzodinma Iweala said America (he was born in Washington, D.C.) even though he has close feelings for Nigeria, Abdulrazak Gurnah didn't seem to give a clear answer that I can recall, and Yasmina Khadra said his home was "inside his books." Interesting, again.

They went on to discuss literature and language. Uzodinma Iweala writes in English and so does Abdulrazak Gurnah who is from Zanzibar which was an English colony (hmm, I didn't know that!) Marguerite Abouet writes in French and so does Yasmina Khadra. Khadra went even further to say that he loves French. He then said, "Arabic is the language of poetry and French is the language of literature." He fell in love with the blonde blue-eyed French language. Then Khadra when on to say that literature has nothing to do with language but with verbs.

At this point I just want to know what the hell the man is talking about. As a black woman, I was beginning to feel dissed. In my notes I scrawled "Who is this guy?" But then I composed myself so that I might try to gleam something out of this panel that I came all this way to witness.

Uzodinma Iweala, who is the second most verbose person on the panel said some stuff that, in retrospect, were quite beautiful. He said that he liked the way Africans take language and manipulate it. Using hip-hop as an example, he talked about how the African diaspora takes language and twists it around and changes the meaning of words. Then when asked about the importance of location, he said that he liked to use place as a means to locate his readers emotionally. Taking for example the spot where he had his first kiss, the location has more meaning because of what happened there. "The more you are able to connect with emotions, the more you are able to connect." Yasmina Khadra then chimed in to say that the true territory of the author is his imagination.

Towards the end of the session the final question was "What is your responsibility as a writer?" The two responses that were the most provocative to me were from Abdulrazak Gurnah and Yasmina Khadra. Gurnah said, "to speak truthfully ... and, oh yes, beautifully" and Khadra said, "none." Then he left to go to another panel.

Yasmina Khadra may have been terse and even insulting but I cannot deny that he made me think. I think what he meant by "literature has nothing to do with language but with verbs" is that the language you choose to write in is not as important as the meaning. (At least that seems to be the only meaning that makes sense to me.) And while I do not like this "I am beyond Africa" attitude, it is remarkable to see a man reach beyond the typecasting of western culture to speak what he believes to be true and real. Then again at the end of every provocative statement he made, there was a noticable grin on his face. It may be that he was just having a little fun with us by keeping us on edge.

Update: I found this blog post about Yasmina Khadra that was apropos.


olufunke grace bankole said...

jenn, you captured this so comically. i found myself laughing outloud. i wish i'd been there.

Anonymous said...

First time here ..I was searching on poetry and zanzibar and here I am at your home...


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